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Joshua Aster, UCLA

When asked about his work, Joshua Aster replied not with a statement but with a “List of Conditions.” “The paint is heavy with water,” it reads. “The brushes are foam and bristle and sponge. The application is consistent and mindful of its neighbors. There is no definitive source material.” He admits to making up rules only to break them, but the gist abides: “The process by which these paintings are made remains the true source of inspiration.”

Whether wall-size acrylics or small-scale watercolors, all of the works follow a basically geometric formula (Aster uses the term “geomocratic”), tempered by a pointedly loose method of application. The compositions consist of varying configurations of stripes, squares, and pixilated diamond- or braidlike patterns resembling those found on Navajo weavings. The lines, however, tend to slant and sway, the squares swell and shrink, and the patterns occasionally clash or awkwardly overlap. In some pieces, these accidents produce an unexpected harmony; in others, they just feel awkward. In either case, however, the rhythm of the process is absorbing enough to draw the viewer along.

“I organize to create chance,” Aster concludes, “as an awareness of one’s own predicament.”

Aster is one-third of the ex­perimental band OJO, which will play at the show’s closing party, October 13.

Claire Baker, UCLA

We met Claire Baker within hours of the final crit of her first year at UCLA, and the unchecked fervor with which she launched into an explanation of her work came as a reminder to us of why we wanted to mount this show in the first place.

In the “real world” of art, there are so many opportunities for cynicism: The museums are moribund, the gallery system is corrupt, the market fosters mediocrity, and the artists so often oblige — choose your target and you’ll find your justification somewhere. It’s not that these complaints don’t afflict MFA students: They’re not children, obviously. But with this few-year window carved out from under the mantle of real-world pressures, they’re one step closer — one would hope — to the magic of what actually happens within the space of a painting (or a drawing or a print or a photograph or a sculpture).

Watching the avidity with which Baker engaged the terms of her project — tackling questions of space and depth, line and movement; holding up whatever it was Lari Pittman had said, then stepping back to consider whether or not she agreed; sorting through the significance of bicycle spokes and rope and other elements of personal symbolism — we could easily believe that this business of mark making was not only exciting, but eminently worthwhile.

Patterson Beckwith, UCLA

In contrast to fellow UCLA grad Tracy Powell’s continent-spanning landscapes, Patterson Beckwith’s still lifes span only a few feet of blackened studio space and a conscientiously artificial range of color. One of the series we’ve tapped focuses on free-floating soap bubbles; the other, on cheap bouquets of grocery-store flowers.

The soap bubbles are a technical feat: Some are clear, some opaque and filled with smoke, some colored. Fog wafts through the air around the bubble, itself often tinted various colors. The effect, however, appears effortless and magical.

It was the flower series that first struck us, however: specifically, a pair of images of a sad little bouquet of dyed-blue daisies, crammed artlessly into the narrow neck of a glass vase. In one image, the blossoms are lively and open, almost hopeful; in the other, they’re dried up and twisted, with a wisp of fog passing behind like smoke on a devastated battlefield. There is a terrible pathos to the transition. They were bright-eyed creatures once, these daisies, but, given the degree of aesthetic poverty they’d been dealt from the start, they never really had a chance.

Jonathan Butt, USC

Jonathan Butt has very clear ideas about what he does and doesn’t do.

“I have chosen to be a sculptor,” he will tell you. “This is not an allegiance to any particular material, nor is it a longing for the robust poetry of male labor.”

The parameters of his practice are equally distinct. “My work is compact,” he says, “with a limited number of features. It is not too simple and not too complicated. Solid or hollow, forms are voluminous with decisive edges. There is very little in the way of smearing and scattering. If something is en masse, then it is an orchestrated cluster. More likely, however, unique characters aggregate a project. The goal is to make a work that is understood in terms of its sameness to a viewer’s own body.”

What’s striking, however, given the insistence on these qualifications, is the variety his work actually entails. Done, one of Butt’s two works in our show, involves a roast turkey cast in fiberglass, perched atop a pile of plastic slabs with an oar in each wing as if rowing to freedom. (He says he got the idea from a cartoon in which a starving castaway envisions his companion as dinner.) Apollo and Daphne, by contrast, is a vaguely classical rendering of two life-size figures suspended in flight, one of them splintering beautifully to pieces.

 

Brad Eberhard, Claremont

Brad Eberhard comes to his bright, dense, irresistibly jaunty paintings by way of instinct and free association. Using Dada as a model, he approaches each composition as a collage, assembling impressions from an idiosyncratic array of archaeological, art-historical and popular sources, and formulating elaborate, if not always obvious, schemes of interrelation. Paul Klee leads to Machu Picchu, he suggests, Hans Arp to the covers of Blue Note jazz records to Raymond Pettibon’s Black Flag logo.

“Concocting based-on-a-true-story lineages like this keeps me off the overtrod streets of literary theory,” he says, “lets visual content beget content, posits ‘meaning’ as local, subjective and weird, and places my work in the tradition of trying to iconically depict freedom and vitality without clichés such as eagles or drips.”

In deference to the legacy of early-20th-century abstraction — a time, he notes, “when experimentation, possibility, discovery and optimism were the most crucial qualities of art” — Eberhard works small. “I am all for the drawing-in that miniaturization produces,” he says. “How about a painting that you can put in your book bag? Delicious. Memorable. A rich experience that gives people a reason to look, linger and, ideally, feel better.”

Eberhard, who also makes collages and installations, is the front man for what fellow WMD Christopher Michlig calls “the coolest band in town,” Wounded Lion. They will play at the closing reception on October 13.

Jocelyn Foye, CSULB

Our feet strike the ground a thousand times a day with so little effect that it’s easy to forget we have any impact on our surroundings at all. We see it only over time — in the hollows worn into the marble floors of old buildings or the paths carved across boulders on well-traveled nature trails — or else temporarily, in sand or mud that’s bound to wash away.

Jocelyn Foye wants you to appreciate these many points of contact, these marks we make on the world. Nearly all of the conceptually oriented sculptural work she’s made in the last few years revolves around some aspect of the body: its shape, its surfaces, its presence and absence. Her most recent series, the newest incarnation of which debuts at the Track 16 opening, focuses on its contact with the ground.

Each sculpture begins as a performance: an athletic interaction — fencing, wrestling and tango in the three she’s made so far — staged on a large mat of semisoft clay. When the clay hardens, the imprints of the participants’ feet remain, like fervent gestures in an Abstract Expressionist painting. Formally refined yet pictorially dynamic, this mat then becomes the sculpture: a frozen record of motion made visible.

Saturday’s performance will take the project to its most explosive level yet, with a choreographed battle between a pair of kung fu san soo street fighters.

?Patrick Jackson, USC

Patrick Jackson doesn’t mind if viewers don’t quite know what to make of his Civil War video Do No Harm. Starring action figures and beautifully (and comically) shot in a studio landscape of dirt, potted plants and the theatrical, saturated skies made possible only by lighted scrims, the 36-minute video is equal parts pathos and absurdity. Jackson, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture prior to USC, believes ambiguity carries a particular power. He points to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and his later Fire Walk With Me. Featuring a live Laura Palmer, the latter was a disappointment, Jackson says, whereas the first film, with Laura dead, “was alive with mystery.” And that mystery created the sort of bond — between film and audience — that Jackson is after.

“I want people to keep watching,” Jackson says, “but it’s not simply to get attention to the video, it’s also to get attention to specific issues — the personal versus the political, slavery, consumerism — just to name a few.” And a fully articulated event is not necessarily the most effective, he adds, given that people, once they believe they fully understand something, “are likely to pack it away into storage.” An inarticulate image, on the other hand, “can haunt people,” he says. “An ambiguous image might bring people to want to understand it.”

Do No Harm will screen at the closing reception for “MFA WMDs” at Track 16 on October 13.

Alex Klein, UCLA

“A lot of my work,” says photographer Alex Klein, “stems from the fact that the bulk of my teens and 20s were spent studying art history and critical theory while, at the same time, participating in the punk rock community. Although theory is relatively out of fashion at the moment, I am interested in rehabilitating or re-examining these issues through a different lens. So there is, I suppose, a hope to reconcile seemingly esoteric subject matter with their material presence and applications outside of the academy.”

 

The photographs that caught our attention, and that we’ve included in the show, come from a recently initiated series of “object portraits.” In one, a starkly designed copy of the 1969 book Bauhaus floats against a garish, rainbowed backdrop. The other, black and white, presents a worn paperback version of Ursula Meyer’s 1972 Conceptual Art. The term “portrait” is apt. As any bibliophile will recognize, these books have character.

“The photographs were taken in the manner of a product shot/advertisement,” she says, “but it is important that the books themselves are used, well-worn copies, which emphasizes their use value as objects.

“What I find fascinating about these and other such subjects is that they demonstrate how so much of our modern collective memory is often indebted to a notion of history as it is determined or shaped by design.”

Michelle Mary Lee, USC

“I became interested in art,” says Michelle Lee, “when my first piano teacher, my mother, colored the music notes with crayons. C would be red, D blue, E green, etc. I became more interested in the colors than the notes. This eventually led me to pursue fine arts; however, I found my inspiration in music.” An accomplished pianist, Lee is also a member of the Los Angeles Flute Choir, and continues to draw on music for her art.

She’s a longtime Angeleno, with a BFA from UCLA, an MFA from USC and a job currently teaching art at her old high school, Marymount. The painting in the show, however — the 6-by-10-foot Reflectionsof Montparnasse — was inspired by a stay in Paris. In speaking of the work, Lee alludes to Kandinsky’s theories of the relationship between art and music. “The painting is built up similar to an orchestra,” she says. “The large passages in the painting parallel the bass instruments in an orchestra, while the smaller marks connect to higher instruments such as the percussion and woodwind instruments.” The effect is a dazzling wave of activity and sensation built up from layer upon layer of eager detail.

Karen Liebowitz, UCLA

In this great, bustling ballroom of an art world, there are paintings that linger in the corners, waiting to be discovered, paintings that come on strong and turn out sleazy, paintings that creep up from behind and charm you with clever conversation — and then there are paintings that appear at the top of the stairs and stun the room momentarily into silence. The paintings of Karen Liebowitz are of this last sort. Unflinchingly ambitious, impeccably graceful and fabulously attired, these are works that set their own terms, sweeping past the crowd of hand wringers still bickering over painting’s 21st-century relevance (is it dead? reborn? reborn and dead again? — who even remembers?) to take up, of all things, the dusty specter of neoclassicism. Draping contemporary bodies in mythological garb, invoking symbolism and allegory (some traditional, some invented), Liebowitz resurrects Western art history’s much-neglected tradition of histrionic spectacle to shore up some pretty big questions.

The Waking of the Gods, the 14-foot diva of our show (see opening spread), illustrates nothing short of “the ultimate apocalyptic manifestation — the arrival of divinity itself.” (The deities in question have been slumbering, apparently, for 2,000 years, abandoning mankind to its own destruction, and it’s up to a small band of female “helpers” — the ones in gold lamé and combat boots — to prod them back into action.) Liebowitz admits without irony to reaching for “philosophical grandeur,” describing the symbols and icons that fill her paintings “as vehicles” through which to approach “the large existential questions of life.” As she leaves the ivory tower to launch her career in the real world, one wonders if she realizes that that’s not really done anymore.

We’re certainly not going to be the ones to tell her.

John McAllister, Art Center

John McAllister’s story has an appealing air of American romanticism, evoking the likes of Pollack and de Kooning. He grew up in Louisiana, where his exposure to art was limited to books and magazines. He studied photojournalism at the University of Texas–Austin, then struck out for the big city, picking up an education in art history while working as a night watchman at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Casper David Friedrich made a lasting impression, as did Frederic Church and Winslow Homer. In 2001, McAllister traveled to Italy, encountering Caravaggio, Bernini, Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. The trip cemented his resolve. “I came back from Italy,” he says, “feeling I needed to do more in every way to make paintings that carried the same force as those I had seen.”

 

So he returned to the books and clippings he’d accumulated in his photojournalism days, looking for a subject that would give his works presence and drama. He became captivated with a photograph of a house being consumed by lava, and that led him to images of fire and explosions. “I noticed how the effects of fire in a landscape were similar to those in Impressionist painting,” he says. “In Monet’s paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, the light is eroding the stone edifice. When there is a fire, the erosion of solid structures is both visual and physical.”

The subject of the paintings, he says now, is not fire per se but force: not just the image but the sensation of a momentous occurrence. “Force is a challenging and wonderful topic for painting,” he says. “It emphasizes the incredible capacity of oil paint to describe and present movement and light.” The paintings are large, beautifully rendered and unapologetically ambitious. “I want my artworks to be invested with intensity and grandeur,” he says, “to carry with them the dynamic sensations of the events they depict.”

Eric Medine, Otis

Whether it be a reflection of the times, the selection pool, or our particular curatorial temperament, this year’s exhibition contains surprisingly few small-scale works, and few that involve very elaborate technology.

One salient exception on both counts is a suite of plaster and polymer resin sculptures by Eric Medine, made using three-dimensional design software and a Z-Max Rapid Prototyper. The objects themselves are a few inches in diameter and installed so that they’re flush with the wall, receding inward. They resemble tiny architectural models but are actually three-dimensional renderings of maps derived from Google searches. The places they document, however, are elusive. “Rather than an inquiry into the map of a known place,” Medine says, “these search requests ask Google to return to a state of mind or a poetical construct.”

The requests, which serve as titles for the works, range from existential to comical: “Place That Is Most Corrupt,” “Place With No History,” “Place That Is Not for Sale,” “Place That Succeeds Where All Others Have Failed,” “Place Where the Dead Outnumber the Living,” “Place Where Everyone Gets Laid,” “Place Where the Good Drugs Are At,” “Place Where They Put Their Hands in the Air Like They Just Don’t Care.”

A peculiar fusion of sculpture, poetry, technology, philosophy and science fiction, the works pack an elaborate conceptual framework into a tight and formally elegant little package.

Christopher Michlig, Art Center

Given all the many ways in which video art is capable of going wrong, particularly in the hands of eager young neophytes with free access to equipment and plenty of time on their hands, the emergence of a work as simply and perfectly right as Christopher Michlig’s La Brea is cause for celebration. Michlig includes a flurry of academic citations in his statement on the work, but don’t let that fool you; it’s actually wonderfully straightforward: just a close-up shot of a bubbling fissure at La Brea Tar Pits, paired with “an electric-guitar soundtrack of a partially muted E chord being strummed in unison with the bursting tar bubbles.” The image is mesmerizing, and the accompaniment priceless.

Michlig describes the work as “a metaphoric evocation of the revolutionary.” We’ll buy that. But even without the conceptual dressing, it’s pretty darn cool to watch.

Chris Oatey, Otis

Chris Oatey’s stark, stylized ink drawings explore the icon of the mushroom cloud, drawing it out of its cultural context temporarily in an attempt to explore its visual mechanics. “There is a sublime nature to photographs of mushroom clouds,” he says. “They have become iconic representations in their scale and shape. This work attempts to separate the viewer from the spectacle of the photograph while begging closer inspection as to how it was constructed.”

The drawings are small and spare, each with a single cloud composed of thousands of tiny black circles. Detached from their weighty historical significance, they become just strange and beautiful shapes — which, of course, points back to why they have become such powerful icons.

Oatey’s digital prints of altered satellite images are very different stylistically — compositionally dense, brightly colored and dynamic — but also involve objects drawn out of their recognizable contexts and abstracted in order to indulge and revel in their aesthetic potential.

Tracy Powell, UCLA

The influence of Catherine Opie on the young photographers of UCLA is visible most notably in a conscientious attention to place. Tracy Powell, one of the most accomplished of those photographers, describes her own project in abstract terms — as an exploration of “the sublime space between where nature begins and civilization ends” — but it is the quality of this attention that distinguishes the work, anchoring her poetic instinct in concrete terms: in the subtle reflections on the surface of water, the entanglement of trees and sky, and the geometry of local architecture.

 

A child of the military, Powell moved frequently while growing up and sees her work now reflecting that experience of constant exploration. “My photographs are about moments found in the midst of journeys,” she says. “There is no distinct separation between bodies of work, no matter where the photographs originated.” Given the sheer beauty of these locales, with their glassy lakes and cloud-skirted hills, it’s an enviable job, this journeying. But photographs of this caliber may the next best thing. And in some ways, they’re even better.

Theodosia Pulitzer, UCLA

Dedication to craft is a quality that defines all of the artists in this year’s show, but none so distinctly as Tia Pulitzer, whose delicate, glazed clay sculptures hearken to the heyday of French and English porcelain, albeit with a vaguely ominous twist.

“Much of my work is about the perversity of beauty,” she says, “the preservation of innocence and my conflict between the necessity and tragedy of inevitable sacrifice.” Her subjects — mostly deer- and doglike animals — are elegant, melancholy creatures with slender limbs, soulful eyes and a skittish demeanor. Most are alone, as if cast out of the mythical dimension that produced them and ill at ease on our own ignoble soil. One carries a snake in its mouth; another has a paw raised as if ready to flee. Several stretch out across the ground, world weary.

They’re beautiful objects, but it’s an unsettling, precarious sort of beauty, like that of purebred animals, simultaneously mystical and decadent.

Jean Robison, CSULB

The space of the screen is dark, but for a single beam of light rolling across the surface of something pale and bulbous. It has curves and folds, like the human body, but an unfamiliar shape. Its skin looks raw and porous, like that of a plucked chicken, but it’s not a chicken. The scale is difficult to discern, as is the shape. Given the ominous soundtrack, however, which is taken from a horror film and suggests the approach of a ferocious beast, it must be something awful.

Actually, you realize in a moment, it’s only a burrito. The discovery relieves the suspense, but not the visual fascination. What a strange thing a burrito is up close, you think.

Jean Robison’s work explores the drama latent in small things: a burrito, a baseball, a bird in flight. “A Coca-Cola cup is complex, lurid and tragic,” she says. “Denim is more than a material for clothing. It embodies history, sexuality, freedom and binding.” Her videos are narrow and incisive, isolating these details from the clamor of the world and celebrating the complexity of their objectness.

Julie Rofman, CSULB

Julie Rofman describes her large, colorful, abstract paintings as “self-envisioned spaces where nonspecific artificial materials converge and collect.” Think of a scrap yard nestled behind an old set of The Jetsons, with free-floating heaps of springy, space-age forms, cast in the cheerful hues of Saturday-morning cartoons. Rofman has an impressive knack for illusionistic depth and uses it to tease the eye into frenzied action. It darts from one mangled cluster of forms to another, trying to construct a coherent sense of space. It tries to disentangle the forms, attribute them to recognizable categories. Are we in space? Under the ocean? In a fish tank? Is that a fender? A toaster? A garden hose? The pleasure, of course, is in the confusion. The works teeter on the line between image and representation, perpetually on the verge of cohering — or else falling apart.

Robert Russell, CalArts

With a half dozen L.A. solo shows already under his belt, Robert Russell comes to this exhibition — and to the completion of his MFA — with a thicker CV than most, and with a curiously wide-ranging history of subjects. Among the works we considered for inclusion here were paintings of flowers, golfers, a goldfish, a kitten, and a nude, Cassatt-like toddler waddling down a beach. There were portraits of children crying, of adults suspended in orgasm and of pigs tumbling shoulder to shoulder into pens. There were portraits of Castro, JFK and Pinochet. Earlier series included portraits of skateboarders, Los Angeles gardeners and strangers glimpsed in passing cars.

The through line is a deeply grounded, if restlessly experimental, painting practice. Russell has an impressive grasp on the mechanics of the figure and a particular talent for gesture, and the best of his works channel the personalities of his subjects with startling clarity. In recent years, this precision has taken a turn for the grotesque, as Russell developed an interest in what he refers to as “the decadent strain” of representational painting — hence the puffy toddlers and baroque expressions of rapture.

 

He describes these recent works as “unapologetically sentimental paintings” embodying “the ruins and remembrances of a gluttonous era in my own private art history when optimism and painterliness were synonymous.” They’re excessive, occasionally kitschy and sometimes rather ugly — but weirdly intriguing.

Frank Ryan, UCLA

It was the last open studios of the UCLA school year, and the building was buzzing with “promise” — a peculiar combination, these days, of old-fashioned collegiate optimism and the uneasy scent of market opportunism, with boosters and rivals, parents and pariahs (who knows which is which?) circling the students like moths.

We came upon Frank Ryan in a quieter studio just off the central thoroughfare, and his detached manner cut through the buzz in an instant. If there was a game, his cool nod suggested, he wasn’t playing it. He didn’t get up, didn’t say more than a few words. And, to his credit, he didn’t have to: The paintings propped up around his studio — particularly the dazzling 9-by-12-foot F Train — spoke for themselves.

Ryan’s intention with the work is deceptively simple: “I am interested in capturing in my paintings a sense of living in the city,” he says. The work reminds one, however, of how rich a thing that is. They’re large, unabashedly muscular works, but suffused with sensitivity: to light, space, the figure, mood. They’re bodily works. “Sometimes I can see myself as connected with the city,” he says, “as if the space that I call ‘myself’ and the space I call ‘my environment’ conjoin.” And they’re quiet works, drawn from moments of deep solitude. Think of a somewhat heavier Hopper, or a somewhat darker Diebenkorn, with a vein of Bukowski running through.

Lily Simonson, UCLA

“My paintings of semiterrestrial arthropods,” says Lily Simonson, “are an exploration of states of ecstasy and the concomitant rupture of the coherent self — liminal moments of becoming that entail a sudden and chaotic collapse of agency and rationality.”

A recent graduate of UC Berkeley now entering her second year at UCLA, Simonson is one of the youngest artists in this year’s show and, as you may gather, one of the most zestfully articulate. In person, she is spirited and chipper. Her paintings, however, are dusky and moody, characterized by a restless, fluttering sort of brushwork and deep wells of basementlike shadow. Her unlikely muse is the common moth, a source of terror in her childhood years transfigured into a symbol of euphoria and transcendence. For those of us not entomologically inclined, it may be difficult to conceive of a beautiful painting of a moth, but here you go.

Simonson’s project received an unforeseen boost this past March from the discovery of a new species of crustacean called Kiwa hirsuta, or “yeti crab,” whose lobsterlike pincers are covered in a fur that is apparently identical to the fur on the bodies of moths. “Given that a series of mammoth lobster portraits preceded my three years of moth paintings,” she says, “I was deeply thrilled by this apparent hybridization of my two central subjects.”

She traveled to Paris this summer to study the only known specimen.

Jacob Stewart-Halevy, UCLA

Jacob Stewart-Halevy describes his composition process as “carving out a sort of theatrical space for my paintings to rest.” The works are basically landscapes and still lifes, but with a painterly tweaking of various elements that plants an unsettling and intriguing element of doubt in the viewer’s engagement with the piece. “Many of the objects painted waver between the natural and the artificial, the real or projected, sense and nonsense,” he says.

The piece in our show, untitled (building), portrays a housing development that could be anywhere — indeed, is made up of buildings in various parts of Los Angeles and Caracas, where Stewart-Halevy travelled, and from Google image searches. Some is invented. Whether it’s an active building or a ruin, however, is difficult to tell: There are pieces missing, it slants slightly, and slumps. It exists — but not entirely, floating precariously (like so many things in this world) between shaky ground and what looks like a very nasty storm cloud. “It is a painting of living architecture,” he says, “one that always threatens to disperse or fall apart, implode or grow out of control, that borders on the uninhabitable and the decorative.”

Stewart-Halevy is spending the summer in a remote part of Iceland.

Louisa Van Leer, CalArts

“My art always starts with the city,” says Louisa Van Leer. “The city is a constantly changing network of relationships; it is erased, redrawn, built over and reconstituted, each time revealing new things about its inhabitants.”

 

With bachelor’s degrees in both fine art and architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design, Van Leer situates her work in the space between the two. Much of her project revolves around billboards and signs and the sightlines they predicate around the city, which she frequently represents as white cones that multiply and clutter the various spaces. In one very digital image, she imagines the cones as long, white flags billowing from a pair of billboards in Silver Lake. If she could keep the flags from being tangled up in the traffic, it would be a brilliant public artwork.

For the show, she’s created a pair of 6-by-10-foot billboards that will be mounted on the roof of the gallery, with text created by shadows that will shift across the sign with the shifting of the sun. The text: “NOW” and “NEVER,” and a nighttime lighted version, “WAIT” and “SEE.”?

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